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John Mellencamp - Strictly a One-Eyed Jack (Album Review)

Thursday, 03 February 2022 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Marc Hauser

John Mellencamp’s latest isn’t an album for people who tell themselves life is all sunshine and rainbows. It’s not for those who bury their heads in the sand, desperately trying to ignore how cruel this world can be. And it's definitely not for anyone who refuses to acknowledge their inner demons. ‘Strictly a One-Eyed Jack’ is a dark-hearted masterpiece for fallible, broken individuals mourning their youth, cursing societal dishonesty, and turning over self-inflicted regrets.

Mellencamp has built the 24th album of his career around the tragic, albeit not uncommon, story of Jack, a wild anti-hero in his twilight years reflecting on a life of heartache, addiction and grief. Introducing himself with the ominous line ‘I always lie to strangers, I always lie to people I may know,’ our narrator subsequently reveals he doesn’t trust anyone and we certainly can’t trust him.  

If that late night folk lament sounds downbeat, it’s a glowing pop ditty compared to funereal album closer A Life Full of Rain, where he curses his mother for bringing him into this world.

Between those stark confessions, references to deception, whether from politicians, media or the church, are woven throughout material that calls into question notions of trust and viewpoint.  

With Jack’s eye patch symbolising a man whose experiences have left him unable to observe the full picture, his take on proceedings is very much a case of perception determining reality. Both Driving In The Rain and Wasted Days, one of three powerful tracks featuring Bruce Springsteen, reveal how this once optimistic youth became so cynical, isolated, anti-social and uncaring.

Or do they? Can we trust a sworn deceiver? Has the duplicitous curmudgeon constructed a yarn to fool himself? And do we even believe Mellencamp when he says this character isn’t him? After all, didn’t he once sing about life going on, long after the thrill of living is gone? Yet, far from leaving us confused, such ambiguity only amplifies the record’s thematic subtext, adding extra intrigue and magnetism as we strive to separate truth from fiction.

‘Simply a One-Eyed Jack’ also happens to be stylistically and sonically magnificent. Akin to Tom Waits and ‘90s Nick Cave shooting the shit in a deep south saloon, as the jukebox spits out gothic Americana, mournful jazz and delta blues alongside twanging rock n’ roll, its bare-bones production allows instruments to leap out of the mix with brutal disregard one minute (I Am A Man That Worries) before coalescing into something gorgeous the next (Chasing Rainbows).

Talking of Waits, Mellencamp sounds like he’s been chain smoking the same brand as the enigmatic legend, his barbecued drawl imbuing sizeable gravitas to Jack’s bitterness and misty-eyed, sometimes deceptively romantic, nostalgia. It’s particularly striking on Gone Too Soon, a hauntingly sad, trumpet-flavoured elegy delivered with the weathered soulfulness of Louis Armstrong.

‘Simply a One Eyed Jack’ presents an unvarnished and unflinching narrative that feels all too resonant. With the amount of misinformation currently circulating, and denial and self-loathing at play when it comes to how people see themselves, this magnificent record is a heart-wrenching allegory for our times and a requiem for days gone by.

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